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The theme for the 2012 edition of the Child and Youth Institute is Youth, Social Transformation and Development in Africa and seeks to bring together scholars to dig deeper into theoretical and empirical ways of understanding the role played by youth in transforming the social, economic, and political spheres or arenas in Africa. Conceptualizing, defining, and representing youth and their worlds has become an important focus of scholars seeking to examine how research itself has constructed youth as distinct social groups that are often presented as disruptive to an otherwise coherent social order and social institutions. Studies that have looked at youth as delinquent, misguided, as causing social crises, as being coerced into mischief, or as subjects rather than agents of their own lives, have provided interesting insights into perceptions and constructions of the youth. Similarly studies by scholars who insist that youth in Africa be regarded through theoretical and empirical lenses that go beyond these stereotypical notions of rebellion and vulnerability have shown how recent advances in technology, the intensification of global processes, and the continued weakening of the nation-state, are contributing to new and complex ways of understanding what it means to be youth in Africa today. Indeed, questions of what constitutes youthhood and the degree to which the lives of youth can be deeply understood have been marred by definitions and research questions often derived from socio-cultural and politico-economic contexts external to the direct experiences of most African youth. It is imperative for scholarship on youth in Africa to not only challenge any one-sided or simplistic explanations of the lives of the youth but also contend with the fact that they are a large and steadily growing population who undergo changes and also influence changes as the society itself keeps transforming.
Demographically Africa is a young continent with up to forty percent of its population aged between fifteen and twenty-four and more than two thirds below thirty years. This conspicuous size of the youth has contributed to the complex and at times vicarious place they occupy in Africa today and hence demands a deepened approach to research and analyses capable of capturing this complexity of youth identity, lives, ambitions, and the critical role they play in transforming their societies. New ways of regarding this complexity are critical because classical sociological views of society that see it as being reproduced through a linear and chronological process marked by stages of childhood, adolescence, and adulthood, will not suffice simply because such views tend to promote the “youth as a problem” approach, often seeing practices such as participation in combat operations or failure to marry at “the right time” as chaotic and deviationist from social order. While these perceptions fit very well with a traditional African social worldview shaped by gerontocracy where cultural and political power are wielded by those with accumulated experiential knowledge, youth demographics and their desire for broad social changes can no longer be wished away. Today, as some small but growing body of scholarship that favors culture making as a creative, contested, and complex process of social (re)production, has shown, youth are actively shaping society through such strategies as the invention of new forms of language; creative contributions to economies through popular culture; reconstituting political movements through participation in armed rebellion or non-violent demonstrations; and the reshaping of public discourse through social media and expressive culture, among many. The “Arab Spring” is a good illustration of such vitality and creativity with youth at the forefront of public protest movements that have led to regime changes in both Tunisia and Egypt. Through activism sparked by this generation’s increasingly interconnectedness brought by social media and technology, these youth, like many of their counterparts in other parts of Africa, are responding to the reality of low wages, high unemployment, and poor governance, all closely tied to economic issues.
The relentless socioeconomic and political changes propelled by Western financial institutions and governments have contributed, for instance, to a gradual transformation of the African terrain through a process that has weakened the state apparatus and heightened the place of youth at the centre of public life as witnessed in some of these movements. Development strategies for the continent that have largely been predicated upon strict austerity measures propelled by the Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) of the 1980s and sustained by continued economic liberalisation and marketisation into the 2000s have had some notable negative effects on Africa’s youth. But there are signs of positive change as well. Growth in GDP in countries such as Angola, Ethiopia, Ghana and Equatorial Guinea by the end of 2010 reflects the 6% economic growth experienced across the continent before the 2008 global economic recession. Previous studies have also shown that youth labour can play a significant role in the development process, especially in countries where rural societies are predominant. Today, we know that with the progresses made in science and technology the youth population is well prepared to assimilate and master the scientific and technological tools that are necessary to propel development. However, such development is often unaccompanied by growth in infrastructure as well as democratic processes. In many parts of the continent, the standard of living has improved but the gap between the rich and poor continues growing, unemployment remains rampant and the youth are adversely affected. And to be sure this is not limited to Africa but is noticeable globally. The 2008 financial crisis and its social impacts in the North, for instance, show that youth issues and social change have become a global challenge in the context of what some call the ‘crisis of capitalism’ or what others see as the ‘end of capitalism’. Manifestations of outrage and disappointment such as those exemplified the “occupy wall street” movement show youth seeking to arrest a social system by demanding more social justice and equality and in turn forcing youth issues to cross many boundaries. While these issues are more critical in Africa mainly because of the youthfulness of Africa’s population and the many challenges faced in such areas as education, training, employment, and health, they call for an awareness among scholars for the need to critically position youth at the center of any analysis of social transformation and development both locally and globally.
The preceding discussions invoke a number of research questions that can be taken up by the participants for further scrutiny: How do we reconcile and understand all the competing socioeconomic and political realities in Africa today? How can the youth as a demographic majority wield power, transform their world marked by high unemployment levels and within a context of inconsistent economic growth by using new patterns of communication and technology to? What role, if any, are youth in Africa today playing in transforming their societies and how are these transformations in turn shaping overall development? What are the roles of decentralized grassroots movements instigated by youth and what they portend for socioeconomic and political changes in their countries given the example seen in Egypt where a more established party (Muslim Brotherhood) garnered enough support to take over political leadership and left many youth involved in the initial movement disenfranchised? Are youth in Africa transforming their societies or are their movements too loosely put together falling short of making lasting changes in their societies? What is the place of global processes and connections in shaping and sustaining socioeconomic and political development for youth in Africa today? What are some of the ways youth have been involved in democratic processes in their countries or communities and how has this participation shaped youth identities and political ideas? Is social media going to determine the ways in which youth will engage with their societies and the larger world and if so to what end? What does the gendered dimension of youth struggles to transform their societies look like? Are there some examples of youth engagement in economic and technological innovations that are influencing national and regional trends in business and investment? Participants at this year’s Institute are expected to address these and related issues and queries.
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